NASCAR Weekend Preview: The Real Heroes 400 at Darlington Raceway

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 01: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Snickers Throwback Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 01, 2019 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

NASCAR is back.

This Sunday, May 17 at Darlington Raceway the NASCAR Cup Series returns to racing for The Real Heroes 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), marking the first race back since the pause in live sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic over two months ago.

As the sport makes its return, it will honor frontline healthcare workers in partnership with The Real Heroes Project, an initiative by 14 sports leagues to recognize and honor medical professionals in the fight against COVID-19.

In association with FOX and the race teams, each driver’s name above the window will be replaced with the name of an individual healthcare worker currently battling the pandemic as a thank you for their dedication. The healthcare workers will also appear in an on-air mosaic to simultaneously give the command for drivers to start their engines.

The series was four races in when the pause in the schedule took place, but the industry jumped into action introducing a whole new virtual world of racing competition. The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series was setup to give drivers and fans a sense of normalcy and their racing fix. The series took the sports world by storm and was a competitive and fun way to spend the downtime. But now that racing is back, the drivers are more than ready to get back in their cars.

“That’s the random factor where you never know what can happen, but I feel like at the same time all of us are going to be very courteous to one another, especially getting going, and making sure we don’t do anything foolish early on to make it look really bad,” said Ryan Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford. “But I have confidence in the whole field. They’re all really good drivers and I think we’ll be ready to put on a good show.”

Pit selection and the starting lineup will be different and based on random draw and owner points. Pit stalls will be picked in advance and the pit boxes will be in the stalls already when the teams arrive.

As far as the starting lineup, positions 1-12 will be chosen by random draw from charter teams in those positions in owners points followed by 13-24 and 25-36 chosen the same way. Position 37-40 will be for open teams in order of owner points.

The stage lengths were announced last week. The first stage will end on Lap 90, second stage on Lap 185 and the race is targeted for 293 laps total making the final stage 108 laps.

Team Penske’s Joey Logano won two of the first four NASCAR Cup Series races (Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway) this season, while Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin dominated the Daytona 500 and Hendrick Motorsport’s Alex Bowman won the third race of the year at Auto Club Speedway. All three drivers are locked into the Playoffs.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, however, is currently leading the points standings just one point ahead of second place Joey Logano. The Hendrick Motorsport’s trio of Chase Elliott (third), Bowman (fourth) and Jimmie Johnson (fifth) round out the top five in points. Harvick has finished inside the top-10 in all four starts thus far, the only driver to have done so in 2020. Stewart-Haas Racing has three of their drivers in the top 15, currently, and Team Penske has all three drivers sitting in the top 10.

Sunday’s Real Heroes 400 will not have any practice sessions or qualifying prior to the event, so the drivers will not have the normal seat time they are accustomed to leading up to the green flag.

“I think it’s going to be a little tough jumping back into the swing of things after, I think I counted 62 days off,” Blaney explained. “But I feel like everyone will be pretty responsible getting going, being smart. Even though it’s not a super-long race, you’ve still got time to work on your car, especially at the competition caution.”

It may not have been the “official” NASCAR offseason, but during the downtime the sport received some exciting news.

Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, has been cleared by NASCAR to return to racing after sustaining injuries in a last-lap wreck during the season-opening Daytona 500. This weekend’s race will mark his first-time back since the accident.

“I’m so excited and thankful to be healthy to get back into the race car. I am thankful for all the people and support that have prayed for me and given me a multitude of miracles. I cannot think of a better track to start back at than Darlington, my favorite track and one we feel confident in. I’m excited to get back behind the wheel of the Oscar Mayer Ford,” Newman said.

Matt Kenseth is also making a return to the Cup Series starting Sunday with Chip Ganassi Racing. Kenseth will pilot the No. 42 Chevrolet for the remainder of the 2020 season, replacing Kyle Larson for the team.

This will be Kenseth’s first start since the 2018 season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And the it will the first time he has piloted a Chevrolet in the NASCAR Cup Series. Without a doubt the 2003 series champion is excited to get back behind the wheel.

“Certainly, the learning curve is going to be steep. I know being out of the car that long, starting with a different team and piling on top of not being able to practice for the foreseeable future, or testing and anything like that, is going to be very challenging,” Kenseth told the media in a NASCAR teleconference on Thursday.

“But, I’m really excited. I have to admit, I’m just as excited as I’ve been to go racing in many, many years. So, I’m really looking forward to getting to the track. I really like this group of guys, the cars look nice, the Camaro looks like they’re really fast, so I’m really looking forward to it. I’m really looking forward to the opportunity, I just know that it’s going to be a big challenge. I’m going to have to work hard and do my best to try and take advantage of the opportunity.”

The NASCAR Cup Series returns at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX at Darlington Raceway for The Real Heroes 400 with a pre-race national anthem performance by South Carolina native and Grammy Award-winning country artist Darius Rucker.

NASCAR Cup Series

Next Race: The Real Heroes 400

The Place: Darlington Raceway

The Date: Sunday, May 17

The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET


Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 400 miles (293 Laps)

Stage 1: 90 Laps, Stage 2: 95 Laps and Final Stage: 108 Laps

Previous Winner at Darlington: Erik Jones

What To Watch For: Darlington Raceway has hosted 116 NASCAR Cup Series races, dating back to 1950. The 116 Cup races have produced 51 different winners, led by NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson with 10 victories. Eight of the 51 winners will be active this weekend, led by seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson with three wins. Erik Jones is the most recent winner at Darlington. … Six drivers have posted their first career NASCAR Cup Series win at Darlington Raceway: Johnny Mantz (1950), Nelson Stacy (1961), Larry Frank (1962), Terry Labonte (1980), Lake Speed (1988) and Regan Smith (2011). … The youngest Cup Series Darlington winner is Erik Jones (9/1/2019 – 22 years, 11 months, 2 days) and the oldest series Darlington winner is Harry Gant (09/01/1991 – 51 years, 7 months, 22 days). … A total of 51 different drivers have won the Busch Pole Award at Darlington Raceway in the NASCAR Cup Series. NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson leads the series in poles at Darlington with 12. Pearson’s 12 Darlington poles are tied with NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough (12 poles at Daytona) for the second-most poles all-time at a single track in the NASCAR Cup Series. Pearson also holds the series record for the most poles at a single track with 14 poles at Charlotte. Kurt Busch (2001, 2013) and Kevin Harvick (2014, 2017) lead all active drivers in poles at Darlington with two each. … The youngest Darlington Cup Series pole winner is William Byron (09/01/2019 – 21 years, 9 months, 3 days) and the oldest pole winner is David Pearson (09/06/1982 – 47 years, 8 months, 15 days). … A total of 11 different drivers have won from the pole at Darlington; led by David Pearson with four wins (1971, 1972, 1976 sweep). Kevin Harvick is the only active driver to win from the pole (2014) at Darlington. … The first starting position is the most proficient starting position in the field, producing more winners (20) than any other starting position at Darlington. The outside front row (second-place) has produced the second-most wins (17). The deepest in the field that a race winner has started at Darlington is 43rd by Johnny Mantz in 1950 – the inaugural NASCAR Cup Series event held at the historic raceway. … In total 163 different drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series have led at least one lap at Darlington Raceway. NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt leads the NASCAR Cup Series in laps led at Darlington Raceway with 2,648 laps led in 44 series starts. Kyle Busch leads all active NASCAR Cup Series drivers with 716 laps led in 15 starts. … The most laps led in a NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway by the race winner was 351 laps of the scheduled 400 laps (87%) by Johnny Mantz on September 4, 1950. He started the race from the 43rd position. The most laps led in a NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway by a driver that did not win the race was 284 laps of the scheduled 367 laps (77%) by Kyle Larson on September 2, 2018. The fewest laps led in a NASCAR Cup Series race at Darlington Raceway by the race winner was just the final lap by Ricky Craven on March 16, 2013. He started the race from the 31st position and won.

Greg Engle